But For the Sky

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Umbria and Tuscany: New Family and Old Friends

We've been to Italy three times in the last three years, and it always feels like a bit of a homecoming. Claudia's aunt Valeria splits her time between Milan and Città di Castello in Umbria, where she and Claudia's dad were born and lived for many years. My connection is a bit more strained: when my great-grandfather was a small child, he left a town in Calabria to emigrate to Pennsylvania and later New York, but I've always felt connected to the country, probably because that's the branch of my ancestors where my last name comes from.

View North from Giardini Duomo

View North from Giardini Duomo in Citta di Castello

This year, for some reason, we both felt inclined do some more research into our roots. When we first started planning this trip, we thought we would swing through both Calabria and Puglia, to do some digging into both of our family trees. Claudia wrote about our day in her paternal grandfather's town of birth, Trani, in the last post, but unfortunately we couldn't find a way to make all that travel time work (we were wary about feeling rushed after agreeing that we tried to pack a little too much into last year's Eastern Europe trip), so we'll have to save the visit to my ancestral town, Platí, for the next trip. But, we found something even better!

The House Claudia's Dad Grew Up In

The House Claudia's Dad Grew Up In

My dad has a cousin who ran an Italian restaurant in the small New York town they grew up in, and he makes trips to Italy to buy wine for the restaurant and take other Italian-Americans on tours of the homeland. I knew that he had some connections to some distant cousins, whom I thought still lived in Calabria, so I called him to ask for their contact information. Much to my surprise he said that they had all left the small Southern town for Tuscany many years ago. He passed along their names--Pompilia and her husband Michele--as well as their phone numbers and the name of the town they live in. We pulled up a map and realized that their town was just a few minutes' detour off our itinerary. The coincidences didn't stop there...

Mary (Maria), Thomas (Domenico) (my grandfather), and Joseph (Giuseppe)

Mary (Maria), Thomas (Domenico) (my grandfather), and Joseph (Giuseppe)

When we arrived in Italy and called Pompilia, she welcomed us exuberantly, as if we had been close our entire lives. Originally, it had not been completely clear to us exactly how we were related, but we eventually understood that her great-grandmother Mary (Maria) Violi and my great-grandfather Joseph (Giuseppe) were siblings. Mary was the oldest of the four siblings, and was married when the rest of the family came to the US, so she was the only one that stayed behind. Pompilia was excited that we would be nearby and invited us to stay as long as we wanted; unfortunately our itinerary only left us with a day to spend with them. And she had one more surprise in store: a sister--Pina--who lives in Città di Castello!

Us and Valeria, with Città di Castello in the Background

Us and Valeria, with Città di Castello in the Background

View from Valeria's Window

View from Valeria's Window in Citta di Castello

Fast forward about a week and a few more phone calls and we found ourselves and Valeria walking into the store that my fourth cousin Pina and her husband Luca run in the town that Claudia had always considered her Italian home. As it turns out, because it really is a small world, Claudia's aunt shops in that store, and she and my cousin knew each other by sight. That night we three went to Pina and Luca's house for a pizza dinner, where we met two of their lovely children, and Pompilia joined us as well. Once again we were made to feel right at home, and completely comfortable with this newfound family. We had some appetizers, a few glasses of wine, and a ton of delicious pizza, and talked about our lives and our families. Just like that, we now had two sides of family in Città di Castello!

Claudia, Pompilia, Valeria, Nick, Pina, Giorgia, Pietro, Luca

Claudia, Pompilia, Valeria, Nick, Pina, Giorgia, Pietro, Luca

The next day, we were again invited to a lunch with our new family, this time at Pompilia's house about an hour away near Siena. We met her husband, Michele, one of her daughters, Angelica, and her aunt Maria who remembers hearing stories and reading letters from the family members who had made their lives in Pennsylvania and New York. Together we looked at old photos of the people who connected us as family.

Pompilia and her family

Nick, Pompilia, Michele, Angelica, Maria and her Husband

We left their house full and happy to have been so lucky to expand our Italian family with such wonderful, warm and lovely people. They say you can't choose your family but we absolutely could not have chosen any better than Pina and Pompilia and their families!

The Happy Couple

The Happy Couple

Now it was time for the final event of our trip, the whole reason we had even planned to go to Italy in the first place: the wedding of Claudia's long-time friend Kris and his Tuscan fiancee Laura. The wedding functioned as a reunion of sorts, as Claudia had not seen some of the other wedding guests who were classmates in over a decade.

#meatcave

#meatcave

 

Roadside gourmet sandwich stand, anyone?

Roadside gourmet sandwich stand, anyone?

The wedding itself was incredibly beautiful and one of the most fun we've ever been to. We instantly caught up with Claudia's high school friends, and it was as if no time had passed. Between the lovely ceremony performed in three languages, the reception, aperitivo (which included multiple trips to the castle's meat cave), dinner, digestif, dessert, and dancing, we had smiles on our faces and laughed endlessly until 5 in the morning.

The WJ Crew

The WJ Crew

Italy never disappoints, but this was one of our best trips yet, and now we have even more reason to visit in the future. More family discoveries surely await, and we can't wait to happen upon them!

View the Umbria and Tuscany photo galleries for this post

Finding My Roots in Trani

My father's father passed away a few years before I was born, so I never knew him, nor have I ever met any member of the extended Fabiano family--all the Italian relatives I knew growing up were on my grandmother's side. I've spoken with my aunt several times to gather as much information as I could about the Fabianos, but alas, she has only ever met a small handful of them, and that was many decades ago. As I learned, Francesco Fabiano, my paternal grandfather, was the 10th of 12 children (if you don't count his supposed twin brother who doesn't show up in any records and I believe died when he was hours old) who were born in the last 20 years of the 19th century in Trani, a trading port on the Puglian coast. The Fabianos had been shipping merchants, trading goods with Venice and former Yugoslavia across the Adriatic, and were apparently quite successful in their business. However, according to my aunt, one of my grandfather's uncles apparently made a few bad deals, or some poor gambling decisions, and my great-grandparents had to sell all their property (including, apparently, a nice chunk of land on beautiful peninsula on the edge of town) and relocate the entire family up north near Milan when my grandfather was just a little boy. I'm guessing they had pissed off the wrong people and staying in Trani was simply not a safe option for the family.

Capo Colonna

Capo Colonna, Where my Great Grandmother Used to Own Land

This family history, as told by my aunt and corroborated with some photocopied pages from my great grandmother's diary, piqued my interest and I developed the desire to just "go see". I wasn't looking for anything in particular; I knew that I probably wouldn't find close relatives living there, but I just had to go see this place where the Fabianos had been for centuries. In fact, this curiosity was one of the main reasons we decided to visit Puglia, so we made sure to plan a quick 24-hour stop in Trani. While I'm pretty sure none of our Fabianos ever moved back to Trani in the decades/century after relocating north, there are still a ton of Fabianos there, with many businesses and Palazzos bearing my last name.

Palazzo Fabiano - Can we get a new sign please!?

Palazzo Fabiano - Can We Get a New Sign Please!?

Palazzo Fabiano

Palazzo Fabiano

We had only been walking through Trani for a few minutes when we saw "Fabiano" on a buzzer outside an apartment building. Having done some research, we took a look at the Palazzo Fabiano (no longer a residence but turned into commercial space) and we checked into our B&B, which was located in a larger palazzo that was still today owned by some Fabianos (which was the main reason I booked us a room there!). Hey, when your grandfather was one of twelve, and his father one of ten, you can see how much of the town could still bear my last name.

Trani Street

Trani Street

In the months leading up to our visit, I did some research online, fueled by the few photocopied pages from my great grandmother's journal that my aunt had dug up and sent me. These pages outlined important birth and death dates of her father, husband, and children, along with the date during which she was indicted into a Christian confraternita (a brotherhood), which I found to be an interesting tidbit and perhaps evidence that she was well-respected and important in her community. I inquired about their records, but they don't keep anything that old.

Cattedrale di San Nicola

Cattedrale di San Nicola

I was still curious and wanted to see what else I could dig up, so I called the Comune (city hall), and asked if they kept birth and marriage records. In under a minute I was directed to a gentleman who asked what I wanted to know, quickly scribbled down the names and birth dates that I could tell him, and told me to stop by his office around noon in two days, when we would be there. I hung up the phone and thought to myself, when the hell did Italy get this efficient?!

Evening Passeggiata in the Port

Evening Passeggiata in the Port

The Comune was unlocked when we arrived and its hallways spoke volumes of the state of local government in Italy (someone please give that place a coat of paint!). We wandered a bit before finding his large but bare and outdated office, and when we walked in, he was sitting behind his desk, lit cigarette hanging out of his mouth, ash on the desk and floor. He had hand-written notes on his desk, and when I squinted I saw the names of many of my deceased relatives. He seemed disgruntled, but I could tell that behind that government employee facade was a man who was truly interested in geneaological research. He scolded me for only having given him two days to research my ancestors, reminding me that some people wait months for this information. He did not particularly want to share his discoveries, and belabored the point that he had to painstakingly go through handwritten birth, marriage and death records kept in yellowing notebooks in handwritten script from another era. He also went off about how he doesn't share his research with the city, and that what he does he keeps to himself, motioning to the USB drive that he keeps all his files on. However, after some back and forth, he revealed the fruits of his research, which were the names of my great grandfather's parents, their parents, and so on, all the way back to my great great great great great great grandfather, born in 1690! I could tell he had found more than what he was willing to share, but I felt lucky enough to have gotten this much information without really lifting a finger. Armed with printed pages containing a piece of my family history, I left feeling what I can only describe as a sense of accomplishment, as if having uncovered a small clue in some giant mystery that didn't really need solving, but was fun to discover anyway.

Fishing Boats

Fishing Boats

That evening we had a delicious seafood feast, then took our passeggiata around the lively port, still full of functioning fishing boats, men selling their day's catch, families pushing strollers, and young men and women socializing and having drinks to kick off the weekend. I took it all in with a huge smile on my face, picturing my ancestors having their evening passeggiata around this same exact port, standing perhaps only meters from where their shipping boats had been anchored and where I was standing at that moment.

Rachele Carbone (my Great Grandmother) at the Port in Trani

Rachele Carbone (my Great Grandmother) at the Port in Trani (Cattedrale San Nicola in the Background)

Cattedrale San Nicola at Night

Cattedrale San Nicola at Night

Our stay in Trani was short and sweet--only one night--and in the morning we stopped by the town's cemetery, where we practically walked into a Fabiano crypt upon entry, and then wandered, seeing countless Fabiano and Carbone (my great-grandmother's name) crypts. I left Trani feeling satisfied that we had discovered a little more about where my family came from and who my ancestors were. I felt just a little more whole than I was before.

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Unassuming Puglia

Trulli along the Ciclovia dell'Acquedotto

Trulli along the Ciclovia dell'Acquedotto

Our next stop found us crossing from Basilicata into Puglia (the heel of Italy's boot) and the sleepy and charming Valley of Itria. The most famous thing about this region is probably its trulli, traditional conical dwellings. We picked out a comfortable bed and breakfast where we could stay in one of these unusual buildings (and the hammock and pool were nice bonuses) and spent our days journeying around the small hamlets in the region.

Martina Franca

Martina Franca

Each town felt similar: the whitewashed buildings, the blooming flowers in window boxes, the cafes with tables spilling out onto the public square. And yet each had a slightly different vibe: different topography, its own culinary specialties, and a different view over the countryside dotted with olive trees as far as the eye can see. Puglia is where the majority of Italy's wine and olive oil is produced, and while the interior of the region is mostly dry and flat and agricultural, it also boasts tons of beaches and coastal towns that in some ways are more reminiscent of Greece than Italy.

Locorotondo

Locorotondo

We had heard great things about Puglia -- it is even referred to as "the next Tuscany" (i.e., get there while you can!) -- and we both found it to be lovely and unassuming in its offerings. It didn't try to be anything it's not, and while Puglia has lots to offer, it hasn't let its appeal get to its head; it's still welcoming without begging for your tourism. It felt more real to me than many parts of the popular Tuscan countryside; sure, tourists have been visiting for decades, it's not some kind of well-kept secret that backpackers just discovered or anything, but it didn't seem like Puglia had inconvenienced itself or undergone any major transformations just because people are increasingly discovering what's on offer. Would you like to taste some of the local wine? Great, come on over, but we're not going to pour you a fancy flight and give you a cheese & meat board to go along with it; in fact, we'd prefer if you just bought a plastic jug of it and enjoyed it at your leisure!

Ostuni

Beautiful Ostuni

This region also contained the culinary (and perhaps overall) high-point of the trip, an eight-course dinner at Masseria Il Frantoio. Upon driving up the estate's gravel driveway, we felt like we were traveling back in time (our first hint may have been the ancient Fiat parked outside the gate). Before dinner, the owner led us on a short tour of the property, telling us about the dozens of different strains of heirloom olives they grow -- each one produces a unique olive oil which brings a unique flavor to the dish it's used in -- the 24 herbs they grow in the herb garden, and the Arabian garden growing oranges and even bananas. His speech was quite boastful, but anyone in his position and with his lifestyle would be proud. We got a clear sense of the region's and the property's history, and he seemed eminently aware of his place in the world.

Masseria Frantoio

Masseria Il Frantoio

After the tour, we were seated for dinner, and as Luciano and his family brought out course after course of simple, fresh, and delicious food, we were awakened again and again to "how food is supposed to taste". We always have this feeling many times in Italy; maybe it's the pace of life, the agriculture methods, or something in the air, but so much Italian produce is so bright, flavorful, and always served at the peak of ripeness that the corresponding food we get here in the U.S. often pales in comparison. Italian cooking is very simple; most dishes have only a handful of ingredients, but when the ingredients are so wonderful, you don't need to do a lot to them.

Figs & Burrata @ Osteria del Tempo Perso

Figs & Burrata @ Osteria del Tempo Perso

Our bellies full and our bodies rested, we headed a few hours north to Trani, a charming port town on the Adriatic that doesn't attract many tourists. Indeed, the thing that brought us there was not the restaurants, sights, or the beach, but the fact that my grandfather was born there. You'll have to wait, because this story will be told in the next post.

Peschici

View from our Apartment in Peschici

The last stop (after Trani) on our all-too-quick tour of Puglia was the Gargano peninsula, where we rented the last apartment on an outcrop of land over the Adriatic Sea. The Gargano Peninsula juts out like a spur on the boot of Italy, and feels more like an island than a peninsula. It boasts a dramatic coastline and the interior contains the only remaining part of an ancient forest, the hilly Foresta Umbra. We woke each morning to have coffee on our small patio with commanding views of the sea, then packed the rental car to explore just a few of the peninsula's many beaches. Although it was a bit windy and not quite high-season, we were shocked to find a beautiful and rugged beach completely to ourselves. We spent all morning in the little cove pictured below with only seagulls for neighbors. We laughed at how many people would be crammed into this beach if it were on the Amalfi coast.

Cala del Turco

Cala del Turco

One day after working up an appetite sitting on the beach, we walked a few minutes up the coast to have lunch at a trabucco, a style of seafood restaurant completely unique to this region. My understanding of the fishing method is that every night they just drop a huge net off a corner of the structure with a few long poles leaning out over the water, then in the morning the pull the ropes at the end of the poles to haul in the day's catch without ever leaving land or casting a line! The informal atmosphere reminded us of lobster shacks in Maine or crab dives in Maryland. The fish was juicy and fresh as can be, accented with a simple tomato salad and even a delicious pale ale--Italy's craft beer industry has made great strides in the last few years!

Trabucco da Mimi

Trabucco da Mimi

The main town in the Gargano Peninsula is Vieste, which we spent a couple hours exploring one afternoon. It is famous for its dramatic white monolith, Pizzomunno, jutting up from the town's beach about 80 feet high.

Scoglio di Pizzomunno

Scoglio di Pizzomunno

We loved the beautiful coastline, plethora of beaches, and windy coastal roads and wish we had had a bit longer to journey into the peninsula's mountainous center. At least we've left something to explore for the next time!

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The Rugged Coastline and Historical Interior of Basilicata

Ah, Italy. Even with the long list of places we haven't been, when an old friend announced he was getting married in Italy, it didn't take us long to decide we'd make the trip.

And if we're going to go all the way over to our favorite country, it wouldn't just be for a weekend. So we pulled out the maps and books and put together a 2 1/2 week gran giro mostly focusing on the South, but also building in some time for family and the wedding in the central region.

Because we've been lucky enough to visit Italy three times in the last three years (and Claudia has been many more times in her life) we've checked off many of the popular tourist attractions so we focused this year's itinerary on food, relaxation, and a bit of an exploration of our roots.

We arrived into Naples and somehow our bags did too. After hopping into the rental car and stopping for our first pizza in Scafati, a town that we chose to stop in partly because of its position off the highway and partly because we remembered our great friend Matt has family ties there, we made our way south along the coast on increasingly windy, cliff-side roads. A couple hours later we arrived in a small town outside Maratea in Basilicata, an often overlooked region nestled in the south of Italy with a short but sweet coastline. This area of the Tyrrhenian coast boasts small, rocky coves with turquoise water that are often only reachable by boat or foot. We were lucky enough to be staying a ten minute walk from a beautiful beach made of black pebbles in the home of the engaging and warm Sonia and Biagio. For three nights, we fought off our jet lag with daily trips by foot to the beach, relaxing in hammocks, and eating fresh tomatoes off the vine. Our hosts could not have been kinder, constantly feeding us homemade goodies, fresh fruits off their trees, and family-made limoncello and wine.

U'nastru Beach

Biagio & Nick

Biagio & Nick

Our Private Terrace at La Torretta

Our Private Terrace at La Torretta

Breakfast at La Torreta

Breakfast at B&B La Torreta

We did make the short drive one afternoon to the actual town of Maratea, a few miles uphill and inland from the coast, and found ourselves enchanted by the way its streets wound with the hills' topography, the lively public squares, and the breathtaking view from the Cristo Redentor statue a bit further up the mountain.

Maratea

Maratea

Having recovered from jet lag and gotten into the vacation groove, we headed to the ancient town of Matera for a history lesson on the region. The city is one of the oldest in the world, dating back to the Paleolithic age, with houses carved out of the region's pliant stone. People lived in these cave-houses ("sassi"), in extremely close and overcrowded quarters, and without any running water, until the government declared them unsanitary in the 1950s and relocated the entire city. However, in the late 80s, the Italian government, with the help of UNESCO, began to rehabilitate the sassi, and now the town is one of the most visited in the South, and one of the European Union's "Capitals of Culture" in 2019. Many of the sassi  have been turned into boutique hotels and fancy restaurants and the town has a very unique and stylish feel. Several movies have been filmed there, including Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (in case you're into self-torture...). Although it was swelteringly hot, we greatly enjoyed wandering around to take in the dramatic views around every corner, watching the locals go about their daily lives, and we even managed to stop in a few museums that depicted how life was in the sassi in the first half of the 20th century.

Matera

Matera

St. Peters Church

St. Peters Church with Sassi in the Background (Matera)

Having gotten a taste of the slow pace, rugged scenery, wonderful hospitality, and delicious food in Southern Italy, we made our way further southeast toward Puglia, where the next chapter of our trip would unfold.

View the photo album for Basilicata

A Look Back at 2013

2013: The year of the unwritten blog post.

I don't know where the year went, but here we are, in glorious 2014, and I realize, thinking back, that we actually kinda got around this past year. Nothing like 2011-2012, but hey, you can't always have the (travel) year of your life. I'm not complaining, but I do miss the days when blogging was our full time job.

This past year involved a lot of US travel, some of it afforded by unexpected furlough time off for me, as well as a big Switzerland/Italy trip for my mom's 70th birthday that took us to possibly my new favorite place in Europe. I meant to write about all these adventures, but alas, this recap will have to do!

We started 2013 off by celebrating the new year with best friends in New Mexico, where we stalked Breaking Bad sites and stuffed our faces with 'New Mex' food in Albuquerque and then tried to burn it off on the slopes skiing in Taos. We hope to be back in that part of the world this spring, when Yael and Curtis welcome their first baby girl!

The Sandia Mountains near Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Sandia Mountains near Albuquerque, New Mexico

February involved a trip to NYC to see Nick's uncle who was visiting from Israel, and then a local skiing weekend at Snowshoe in West Virginia with friends that turned out almost as much fresh powder as our Taos weekend. Not wanting to push our luck any further with two amazing skiing trips under our belts, I began to think about sun. March took me to Palm Springs for my dear friend Chris' bachelorette party, where we ate citrus fruits off the trees and pretended we were in Mad Men.

Backyard of our Midcentury Mod Rental at Dusk

Backyard of our Midcentury Mod Rental in Palm Springs at Dusk

April rolled around, and I had my mind set on making lemonade (a SCUBA diving trip) out of lemons (forced furlough days). And we all know... when I set my mind on a trip, it is going to happen, come hell or high water. I brought little more than a bathing suit, my PADI card and my mom, and spent a week diving off the world's second largest barrier reef in Roatán, off the Caribbean coast of Honduras. Added bonus: it matched my furlough budget perfectly and the diving was some of the best I've ever done.

Cayos Cocinos, Honduras' Bay Islands

Cayos Cocinos, Honduras' Bay Islands

In May we celebrated our second wedding anniversary with a laid back weekend at Deep Creek Lake, in western Maryland, and then got ready for our big vacation in June! I first went to Switzerland to see my uncle and cousins whom I had not seen in years, and then Nick and I spent an absolutely amazing 11 days in Sardinia (Italy) with my mom and cousin, followed by a date weekend in Rome. I've said it before, but really, make Sardinia your next European vacation.

The Stirling Family in Switzerland

The Stirling Family in Switzerland

Cala Fuili, Cala Gonone, Sardinia

Cala Fuili, Cala Gonone, Sardinia

We try not to make a habit out of letting more than a year go by without checking out a music festival, so July brought us and our music fiend friend Kelly to Newport, Rhode Island, for the Newport Folk Festival. While I am not a huge folk fan, I loved the laid back vibe of the weekend, the awesome setting on the water, biking around the area, and of course, all the fried delicious Rhode Island seafood at Flo's Clam Shack. Seeing Black Prairie, Beck, Bombino, and The Lumineers wasn't too shabby either. We'll be back for more, that's for sure.

Black Prairie

Black Prairie

Since we didn't make the annual family reunion in upstate New York over July 4th weekend, we packed up the car and left for a long weekend to join Nick's dad's family in Sylvan Beach (on Lake Oneida near Syracuse) in August. Gin and tonics, fire pits, sunset photos, beach croquet and an upstate New York culinary specialty called "salt potatoes" made for a fun and relaxing long weekend with the Violi clan.

Gotta Get That Sunset Photo, part 589

Gotta Get That Sunset Photo, part 589

September brought me to East Hampton, New York for another amazing bachelorette weekend full of lawn games, delicious food and tons of laughs to celebrate my college roommate Joyce. Joyce, if you're reading this, don't forget about my offer to housesit that gorgeous Long Island South Fork house of yours anytime!

This Yard Is Almost as Pretty as the Bachelorette

This Yard Is Almost as Pretty as the Bachelorette

I love east coast fall more than anything. But before we totally let go of summer, we spent the last weekend of September in Southern Maryland, a place that's special to us because we were married there in 2011, and also because Chesapeake Bay crabs, hello! We camped and canoed in Point Lookout State Park, which was a Confederate POW camp during the Civil War; 4000 of its 50,000 prisoners supposedly died there. Prisoner ghosts aside, it's a lovely and serene gem of a place at the southern tip of Maryland's Western Shore, and it's also one of the launches for the ferry to tiny Smith Island, an eroding island with a population of less than 300. There's not much to do here, other than eat soft shell crabs at one of two restaurants, grab a slice of the famous Smith Island Cake, and bike between the two towns. We rounded out the weekend with a wine tasting at Woodlawn Farm, where we got married and hadn't been since!

Smith Island

Smith Island

Woodlawn Farm

Woodlawn Farm

October brought an unexpected trip to Chicago for me. The government shut down had me at home way too much, trying to avoid the relentless rain and the constant news feed that only seemed to indicate I definitely had enough time to take a last minute trip somewhere before those goons on the Hill got their acts together. The Windy City has been on my list for a long time, and I was lucky enough to make it there just a few weeks before my friends Jeff, Aimee, and their 5-month old daughter moved away, so I had lovely hosts to boot.

Cloud Gate (The Bean)

Cloud Gate (The Bean)

October and November took us to NYC two times, first to spend time with our close friends and their baby girl, and then for my friend Joyce's wedding, which was a fantastic college reunion. Between those two, we squeezed in a trip to Austin to visit our friends Amy and Ben, eat tacos, hit up a music festival, and eat more tacos. We were successful on all fronts!

Manhattan Sunset for Joyce and Mike's Wedding

Manhattan Sunset for Joyce and Mike's Wedding

Tacos at Takoba

Tacos at Takoba (Austin)

Thanksgiving through Christmas is all about family, and we do it up right. Nick's family in Boston throws a superb Thanksgiving get together, and three weeks later we reunite again at his grandparents' house in Manhattan, this time complete with a white elephant gift exchange and plenty of rounds of Coffee Pot and Celebrity. No reunion tee-shirts, no drama, just straight up fun!

The Older Heller Generations & Their New Friend

The Older Heller Generations & Their New Friend

And that (phew!) brings us to the end of the year, which Nick and I spent in adorable Asheville, North Carolina. I cannot speak highly enough of this town and our time there; it deserves its own post. All in all, a wonderful end to an awesome year! Already pumped about where 2014 will bring us...

River Arts District, Asheville

River Arts District, Asheville

To Rome With Love

Dreaming of Rome on this lovely evening...

Its adorable piazzas

Largo dei Librari

Largo dei Librari

Its secret bread rooms (this door was open so we peeked in; it was two doors down from our apartment building, and made our room smell like freshly baked loaves every day!)

Bread Closet

Bread Closet

Ella's Street Art

 

Ella's Tiki Along Lungotevere (Trastevere, Rome)

Ella's Tiki Along Lungotevere (Trastevere, Rome)

America...

America...

Murals everywhere

Mural Outside Circolo Degli Artisti

Mural Outside Circolo Degli Artisti

Its street performers

Balancing Act

Balancing Act

... And of course, its pizza!

Pizza at Forno Roscioli

Pizza at Forno Roscioli

Eating Pizza for Breakfast in Trastevere

Eating Pizza for Breakfast in Trastevere

It really is no wonder Rome is my favorite city in the world.

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Sardinia: Look No Further for Your Next Destination

I had never spent much time thinking about that "other" Italian island until last year when I was looking for a destination in Italy that would have pretty beaches but other activities to keep my husband (a hiker, a climber, but not a beach bum), my mom (a beach bum and culture enthusiast), and myself (all of the above) happy for ten days. Italian beaches, from my experience, are disappointing--small, crowded, rocky, with polluted water and overpriced real estate (a lounge chair and umbrella can set you back $25 for the day). But to my surprise, I was finding nothing but great reviews of Sardinia's white-sand beaches with turquoise waters, many only reachable by boat, some backed by imposing limestone cliffs or huge sand dunes on all sides.

Cala Luna, as Viewed from the Coastal Hiking Trail

Cala Luna, as Viewed from the Coastal Hiking Trail

I was intrigued by the island's history of occupation which seemingly has left Sardinians proud and fiercely independent, their culture and traditions intact over the centuries (they still speak their own language, Sardo). It seemed like a rugged, intense, but still welcoming place. And the more I researched, the more I realized that this semi-autonomous Italian island might just be the perfect place for all of us: tales of world-class rock climbing, hiking through mountains on uncrowded trails, more archaeological sites than one could ever see in a single visit, SCUBA diving, gorgeous (/perilous) mountain drives, and quaint towns had me convinced that I needed to look no further. Watching an episode of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations in which he (of course) eats his way through the island with his hot Sardinian wife pretty much sealed the deal for me. Mom and I decided we had found the perfect place for her celebratory 70th birthday trip.

Mom and Daughter on the Beach in Chia

Mom and Daughter on the Beach in Chia

With high expectations, my mom, my cousin Sara (she barely needed the twist of an arm to be convinced to join us), Nick and I found ourselves in sunny Sardinia this June. The three ladies spent our first three days in and around Cagliari, the capital of Sardinia, and a city on the southern coast that proved to be much more than just a convenient base for day trips. We started each day with espresso and croissants at a sidewalk cafe, then hit the road to explore the southeast and southwest areas of the island, stopping at gorgeous beaches each day and enjoying our picnic of delicious tomatoes, crusty bread, and mozzarella di bufala while gazing at incredibly blue waters. We hiked in the Monte dei Sette Fratelli, where we saw no other hikers during our 5-hour trek.

Cagliari's Castello Neighborhood at Sunset

Cagliari's Castello Neighborhood at Sunset

While Cagliari is perfectly located within an hour of some of the island's prettiest stretches of sand and therefore serves as an ideal base, we found ourselves really enjoying the pace and feel of the city itself. I expected it to be sleepy, but was surprised at not only how many locals we encountered at the town's may cafes and piazzas, but also by the large proportion of young people (the economic crisis has caused many young Sardinians to seek work on the mainland and beyond). And the seafood- THE SEAFOOD!- was to die for. I have never eaten so many different kinds of fish and shellfish cooked in various ways, all for the wallet-friendly price of less than $20 per person for all-you-can eat hot and cold appetizers, brought to your table seemingly fresh from the sea.

Sara in Cagliari

Sara in Cagliari

On the fourth day, Nick joined us, and after a rental car snafu that may or may not have been caused by me burning out the clutch on an Alfa Romeo during rush hour in a crowded roundabout (no really, I am still not sure if it was totally my fault or if the car was a little screwed up to being with...), we were back on track and driving up into the rugged Gennargentu mountains toward Cala Gonone, our home on the east coast for the remaining week.

The First Glimpse of Cala Fuili

The First Glimpse of Cala Fuili

Until relatively recently, Cala Gonone was inaccessible by car and only reachable by sea. It's a pleasantly laid-back holiday town, beautifully situated on the Golfo di Orosei, arguably one of the island's most breathtaking stretches of coast. Huge limestone cliffs are interrupted occasionally by postcard-perfect beaches that are almost all only reachable by boat. Some of the island's best rock climbing can be found in this area, so we were basically in heaven. We chose a different adventure each day: hiking between beaches, or bringing our climbing gear and reveling in the jaw-dropping views that rewarded us after a tough ascent.

Nick Leading a Climb on Cala Fuili

Nick Leading a Climb on Cala Fuili

Claudia Climbing at Cala Fuili

Claudia Climbing at Cala Fuili

 

The Terrible View from the Top

The Terrible View from the Top

We drove on roads with switchbacks that would be highly illegal in the US to reach our destinations. We hopped on a boat to check out a grotto one afternoon, and hiked through a gorgeous river valley to explore one of Europe's deepest canyons the next. In the evenings, we either cooked delicious dinners in our apartment and spent the evening drinking local wine on our cozy balcony, or we tried the local delicacies at a restaurant. Each night we went to bed with huge smiles on our faces--we were tired, full, and happy; excited to see what the next day would hold.

Playing Around in the Gola su Gorroppu (one of Europe's deepest canyons)

Playing Around in the Gola su Gorroppu (one of Europe's deepest canyons)

My Umbrian family wouldn't be happy hearing me say this, but I think Sardinia is my new favorite region in Italy (if not in all of Europe). Somehow, I don't think they'd be too offended, because Sardinia might as well be its own country; I almost don't feel that it should be compared to anywhere on the mainland. The slow pace of life, the proud but friendly people, the strong sense of tradition, the striking natural beauty of the place--sure, those things can all be found in Italy, but there is just something incredibly special about this island. Trust me, go there, and I promise you will not be disappointed.

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Florence: Art and Tourists, In Equal Numbers

Even though I'd been to  Florence numerous times myself, it just didn't feel right to  take Nick to Italy and not stop in there, so off the birthplace of the Renaissance we went. I have mixed feelings on Florence: it's so full of beautiful art and history, but with that comes  a mind-boggling number of tourists jam-packed into a relatively small city, making it feel much more tourist-oriented than an actual city that Italians live and work in. To make matters crazier, we unknowingly arrived during Florence's busiest week of the year: Pitti, a  huge fashion fair,  was going on, so the town was up to its ears in models, designers, and the like.

A Sneak Peek at the Duomo

A Sneak Peek at the Duomo

One of the Uffizi's Many Masterpieces

One of the Uffizi's Many Masterpieces

Ceiling at Palazzo Vecchio

Ceiling at Palazzo Vecchio

You could spend weeks in Florence, going to museums every day, and not make a dent in the vast number of masterpieces housed in Florence's galleries, palaces, and even piazzas.  We only had two days, so  we picked wisely and visited the Uffizi Galleries, which have to contain the biggest number of Virgin Mary + Baby Jesus paintings of all time! The collection is impressive, but we knew our limits when it comes to Renaissance paintings, so we spent the rest of our time walking through the cities busy streets, gorging on Tuscan food, and catching up with our good family friend Sergio who came to spend the day with us.

Claudia and Sergio in Front of the Loggia dei Lanzi

Claudia and Sergio in Front of the Loggia dei Lanzi

My father studied architecture in Florence, and for that reason alone it will always be a special place for me to visit, but at the end of the day I think Nick and my mom summed it up nicely when I asked them what they thought of Florence: "It's no Rome!" In any event, it was time to leave the crowds behind and head to Austria to see the other half of my family for the final few days of our trip!

Astronaut Babies

Astronaut Babies

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An Umbrian Homecoming

All of my relatives except my mother live in either Italy (dad's side) or Austria (mom's side), so I only get to spend time chatting with relatives, reminiscing about the past, and eating classic family meals together about once every few years. After not having been to my father's hometown, Città di Castello, in twenty years, and not having seen my aunt since 2006, I was really excited to come back to Umbria. I wanted to spend our precious time here with family, looking at old photos, reminiscing over the times we spent here with my grandmother when I was a little girl, and walking around the town.

View of Umbrian Countryside from My Aunt's Window

View of Umbrian Countryside from My Aunt's Window

Many people haven't heard too much about Umbria, the "green heart" of Italy. It's in the shadow of its famous neighbor, Tuscany, and while it receives way fewer visitors, in my mind, it offers the vistas that are just as beautiful, food that is just as delicious, and towns that are just is charming, with the advantage of being much less crowded. But of course, I'm a bit biased.

Some of my favorite moments from our short time in Umbria include:

Catching up and goofing around with my Aunt Valeria and her cousin, Gabriella

Claudia, Gabriella, Valeria

Claudia, Gabriella, Valeria

Visiting the Chiesa di San Franceso, where a copy of Raffaello's painting Lo Sposalizio (1504) adorns a huge wall. This painting was commissioned by one of my grandmother's ancestors to commemorate a wedding in the family. It remained in this church in Città di Castello for over 300 years and is now displayed in a gallery in Milan.

Copy of Lo Sposalizio in the Church of San Francesco

Copy of Lo Sposalizio in the Church of San Francesco

Looking through old family photo albums

My Great Aunt Vilna, Crocheting a Sweater for a Cat

My Great Aunt Vilna, Crocheting a Sweater for a Cat (For Real)

My Dad in 1982 (That's an Actual Polaroid, Not Instagram)

My Dad in 1982 (That's an Actual Polaroid, Not Instagram)

Receiving a very special belated wedding gift from my aunt

Wedding Potrait

Wedding Portrait

Checking out the impressive frescoes in the Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi

Basilica di San Francesco

Basilica di San Francesco

And of course, enjoying delicious home-cooked Italian meals!

Umbrian Dinner

Umbrian Dinner

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Yum: Gelato!

Eating gelato at least once a day while in Italy is completely unavoidable. I am willing to risk not fitting into any of my clothes at the end of my trips there if it means I can stop for ice cream about as many times a day as I refill my water bottle. Gelaterias are almost on every block in most Italian cities, so really, self-restraint has no chance of prevailing here.

So Happy!

So Happy!

The thing about Italian gelato that some people don't like is its "lack" of texture. Most of the flavors are really smooth and creamy; you won't find chocolate-covered pretzels, miniature cinnamon buns, or chunks of raw cookie dough here.  And while most gelaterias have a few dozen flavors, I've always been a big fan of the classics like nocciola (hazelnut) or dark chocolate. However, not being one to discriminate when it comes to desserts, I'm also a sucker for trying flavors that I know I will probably not find anywhere else. Some of my favorite finds were caramelized fig (at Giolitti in Rome), hazelnut meringue, ginger + cinnamon (both at San Crispino in Rome), spicy chocolate (at Vestri in Florence), ricotta + pear, and gorgonzola + nuts (both at Gelateria dei Neri in Florence). I'll be back for the remaining 856 flavors that I didn't get to this time, lactose intolerance be damned!

Less than Half of Giolitti's Flavors

Less than Half of Giolitti's Flavors